Literary Greats Always Cheat at Golf

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it.” Rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (188-189)

My perspective on this will, inevitably, change, but trapped as I am in this kind of preemptive grieving process I was interested to see it addressed in one of my mopey death books, even if the passage doesn't reflect the way my mind is working at all.

First, I suppose Didion isn't talking about the kind of pregrieving you do when you have actual evidence to indicate that you will lose a loved one, she seems to be talking about the more soap operatic obsessive melancholies you indulge in when driving in the car. Sucker as I am for melodrama, there's a certain level of satisfaction I've found in imagining the funerals of my loved ones-- what I will wear, what I will say, how moving I'll be, how sad I'll be. Not that I wish them dead at all, god, not at all. I imagine the correlation of imaginary funeral to the real is like that of pornographic, fantasy rape to the ugly, real thing. This kind of musing is a lark, like crying at a book or movie, there is nothing at stake.

Because I've been morbid in this way for ages and ages, it's hard for me to imagine a funeral for real, but honestly, it doesn't strike me as the really upsetting part for just the reason Didion mentions. No one expects you to acquit yourself well, everyone caters to your emotional fragility. You (or I suppose, I) will be surrounded by the clumsy affection of everyone who loves you (or me) best.

What I have a difficult time approaching is the lack there will be after. I can't stop coming close to thinking about this. I say coming close because my aversion to it is so strong that I end up trying to immediately distract myself I have trouble sleeping now, and when I lie in bed I can't keep myself from the same obsessive rhythm. How can I be in my family without my mom? Will we still have Christmas at home? Will my Dad die soon after, I hear that happens a lot, but mainly with old people, then again, his health isn't awesome... Will I go crazy? Will I ever be able to do anything without thinking about this? I'm going to miss my mom so much. There are things about my mom I don't know, darker things that I have hints of. Do I ask now and have to know forever? Or do I not ask and decide to never know? Which way is better for my mom? Better for me? At a certain point I will have no more options. The past, once it becomes the past, is completely unchoosable.

A point Didion hints to, but doesn't pursue (fairly, since it doesn't apply to her situation) is how little comfort it is for grief to be prolonged and not sudden. I'm not suggesting that sudden death is easier to bear, I really wouldn't know, but it's difficult to manage the twin pressures of appreciating the time that my mother is alive and not acting like it's over and sinking into depression but at the same time recognizing the gravity of the situation and treating it seriously.

Another thing the book captures well is the rapid fluctuation of one's perception of grief. An ordinary moment can turn in an instant. A sad moment can turn boring and ridiculous. The pressure to feel a certain way at certain times is intense and unreasonable, but how is anyone else to track my veering twists my rapid contortions? The number of times I have started a conversation about my mother only to realize that I was too bored of myself to want to finish it is unreal and doesn't seem to me the mark of a really sane, stable person.

Which all points up to another capital-I-Natalie Issue: Why is it so important to me that I be interesting all the time? Part the first, it's not a standard I hold my friends to, especially when they have it rought. Part the second, I'm sure I have already lost your interest many times before when I didn't even think I was being boring, and yet, you're all still here with me. (Aren't you?)

I suppose that's something I have to be more comfortable with. The fact is, grief and mourning are things that take a long time, and like anything that takes a long time they will tend to stretch over a variety of emotional states, some of which are boring. It's probably not pathological, just time consuming.



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